A Story Like That’s Gotta Be True

Have you ever noticed that veterans of the aviation world seem to all have phenomenal stories to tell? Perhaps more than hours logged, airports visited, or miles traveled, this is the metric which best measures a pilot’s experience level. Quality, not quantity. As the saying goes, some people fly 10,000 hours, while others fly the same hour 10,000 times.

On the other hand, maybe this is just proof that some people are really good at telling hangar stories. I don’t know.

I was recently in Dallas for a week of recurrent training and stayed at the home of a fellow pilot/instructor who has my utmost respect. He served on helicopters (“We just called them ‘airplanes'”, he said, “because that’s really what they were”) in the Marine Corps during Vietnam and always has a wonderful yarn to spin. We spent a few hours exploring the Cavanaugh Flight Museum one afternoon before my scheduled drubbing in the G-IV sim on the other side of town, and from the earliest World War I relics to the massive Mach 2 rocket ships, he had a tidbit or observation about each that made the museum encounter richer that it otherwise would have been.

On the flight home a few days later, I realized that somewhere along the bumpy and undulating airway which has thus far passed as your humble host’s flying career, the inventory of improbably wacky stuff I’ve experienced over the years has turned into a halfway interesting library of its own. For example…

The Sticky Jam

A little over nine years ago (could it possibly have been that long?), I was at an aerobatic contest in a rustic little town in the central California wine country called Paso Robles. Incidentally, they don’t have contests there any more; the FAA decided not to grant the traditional waiver for the aerobatic box. They are becoming an endangered species, unfortunately.

Anyway, an aerobatic sequence typically beings with a steep dive toward the ground and several aggressive wing wags to signal to those not lucky enough to be flying — the judges — that it’s time to start looking for mistakes. When I say aggressive, I’m talking 90 degree banks, back and forth. Big, juicy stick deflections of the kind 99% of the pilot population never uses beyond a preflight control check.

That what it should have looked like. Instead, after the first or second wing wag, the ailerons instantaneously jammed in a partially deflected position. Did I mention that the nose was about 40 degrees below the horizon and the speed was building toward the red line? You can read the rest of the story for the details, but suffice it to say there wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent the incident because the jam was caused by FOD inside the wing.

Hitching a Ride

It pays to be nice to people. Your mother probably told you something like that. But it’s true. In 2003, if I recall correctly, I was poking around some rare World War II hardware which was on display John Wayne Airport when I overheard an off-duty airline pilot talking about the terrible Southern California traffic and wondering how he was going to make it to Ontario the next day to pick up his flight home. A cab ride was going to be expensive, and a rental car too much hassle.

At the time I owned a Skylane which was based not 500′ from where we were standing, so after making an awkward break into the guy’s conversation, I offered my services and aircraft to get him to the church on time. His problem instantly solved, he said maybe there’s something I can do for you. I figured he was talking about throwing a few dollars my way for gas.

An hour later, I was logging my first flight in the right seat of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The airline pilot was one of the bomber’s volunteers and flew left seat.

It Can’t Be Done!

I don’t care how much flight time a person’s got, there’s no way a proper and thorough tailwheel endorsement can be completed in a single flight. You’ve got to cover three-point landings, wheel landings, crosswind landings, go-arounds, bounced/swerved landing fixes, proper taxi technique, and a host of other items that the student must master before any instructor worth his or her salt can, in good conscience, sign that person off as qualified to act as pilot-in-command of a conventional gear aircraft.


You can probably imagine where this is going. I should have taken Sean Connery’s advice and “never said never”. A half decade ago I ended up training a pilot who was transitioning into the Air Force’s only remaining active-inventory tailwheel aircraft. (Do you know which airplane I’m referring to?) He’d been advised that it would be a good idea to get a tailwheel endorsement before starting the transition course since his new ride was notoriously challenging to land.

Now this guy claimed less than 1,000 total hours, hadn’t flown anything light or propeller-equipped for years (and then only briefly), and had a grand total of zero tailwheel time. As an active duty Air Force pilot, I expected quality flying, but what he brought to the cockpit was a freakish Bob Hoover-like ability. He flew the airplane flawlessly and showed an instantaneous mastery of the most challenging exercises I could throw his way, and did it all with gentle humility. After the fifth or sixth perfect short-field, crosswind landing in a row, all I could say was, “I always wondered what it’d be like the fly with a guy who changes clothes in a phone booth…”

The Sound of Silence

In 2004, I was working toward my commercial glider rating at the now-defunct Hemet glider port and had to perform a number of solos to meet the requirements of 14 CFR 61.129. One one of those flights, I was startled by the sound of a cell phone ringing. I instinctively turned around to tell my back-seater that they should turn their phone off, lest the signal from their device upset the delicate electronics in the… the um… you know, the… well, dammit there must be somethin’ in this ship that uses electricity!

Nope. Nothing. No radio, no transponder, not a single item. The Schweizer 2-33 was so low-tech that it was almost high-tech.

Then I remembered there was nobody in the back seat — I was flying solo anyway and it was my own phone which was ringing. So I did the logical thing: fished it out, opened the clam shell, and had a nice long conversation with a friend while I was circling up in the thermals. I only recall the start of the conversation, the part where the caller instinctively asks what’s going on and you get to tell them you’re in a glider two miles above the ground soaring with some birds and zooming around puffy white clouds while they’re stuck in a cubicle under fluorescent lights.

On the previous flight, I’d been picking up some great lift north of the airport and started hearing a warning siren somewhere in the cockpit. As I mentioned, there’s nothing electric in that glider. It doesn’t even have a battery, and the sound was not something that would come from a Motorola Razr.

It took me a few minutes to realize that from 9,000 feet above ground, I was hearing the sound of a fire truck driving through the streets of town.

It’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good

Every now and I do something that makes me think I’m a halfway decent pilot. For example, during a 2010 commercial training flight in a well-worn Cutlass, the engine ate a valve on the west end of the Santa Ana Canyon. The vibration and smoke were sufficient to encourage me to shut down the powerplant and head for Corona. I somehow managed to descend, fly a left hand pattern, lower the gear, and make a perfect power-off 180 degree accuracy approach, narrating the procedure to my student all the while. There was even enough energy left to coast off the runway and into an open tiedown space.

On the other hand, there are also times I can’t seem to find my posterior with both hands. A humbling visit to the annual West Coast Cub Fly-in in Lompoc, CA was a prime example of that. They offer two contests to visting Cub pilots: one is a flour bomb drop, and the other an accuracy landing competition.

How hard could it be to drop a sack of flour from 100′ above ground? It ought to be a cinch to put that thing within twenty, maybe thirty feet of the bullseye on the first attempt. Ha — right! Even my third drop was so poor that spectators, already at a more than respectful distance, were edging away from the periphery. I was Dr. Strangelove, but without any love for the bomb.

The landing contest? I managed to get the tailwheel to touch down within a few inches of the painted line. Surely that’d be sufficient to claim a top spot. As if! I probably ended up about 20th. There were people who could put any given wheel of their J-3 on — not near, but ON — the line every single time. These were guys who might have taken delivery of the airplane in Lock Haven when it was brand new. Today they’d have a hard time standing up straight or walking, but put them in the cockpit of that little Cub and prepare to be amazed.

On the plus side, I did receive the one award which did not require any skill whatsoever: “Youngest Pilot”. Yeah… that’s more my speed.

This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

  17 comments for “A Story Like That’s Gotta Be True

  1. August 8, 2013 at 3:32 am

    Awesome post Ron! Now I’m going to be late for work, but once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop.

    • August 8, 2013 at 8:26 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Brent. I’ve done the same thing myself — in fact, I think “I got carried away reading a blog” might be the 21st century equivalent of “the dog ate my homework”. 🙂

  2. Gov
    August 8, 2013 at 4:41 am

    Brilliant post! Loved reading every word!

    • August 8, 2013 at 8:27 am

      Wow, high praise indeed. Thank you!

  3. Karlene
    August 8, 2013 at 6:41 am

    Ron, you’ve got a guardian angel, that’s going for a heck or a ride on your shoulder. It’s better to be lucky that good…. Yes. Unless you’re “Good and Lucky” which I suspect is the case with you. Also… I didn’t know Sean Connery said, “Never say never.” He must have got that from me! lol. I knew there was a reason I liked him. Excellent post!!! Yes… truth is stranger than fiction!

  4. Robert A.
    August 8, 2013 at 8:18 am

    Ron, you knocked out of the park again with this post. Every time I read one, It makes me feel like climbing in a plane with you. If you fly as well as you write, it would be an awesome experience.

  5. August 8, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Wow, Ron, awesome post!

    You remind me that, looking back, we ALL have a tapestry of phenomenal memories simply because we chose the “magic of flight” as our hoobby or career! K short comment–off to read about that jammed aileron!

  6. August 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Robert, if you get a chance to fly with Ron, DO SO. His flying and instructing is better than his writing believe it or not!
    Another great post Ron…

    • August 12, 2013 at 9:55 am

      Thanks Mike! Hopefully we’ll get a chance to fly together again soon. See ya at the ‘Barn!

  7. Graeme
    August 8, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    That glider story, both of them are amazing and I echo exhibits clais

  8. August 9, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Great entertainment! Never gets old! Thanks Ron..

  9. AK
    August 11, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    Hey Ron- great post, i think im starting to get hooked on your blog 🙂 but anyways, i totally agree with the treating people right part. A little kindness goes a long way, and not only in aviation. Personally, ratings and education notwithstanding, my career development was greatly propelled by the individuals who were simply reciprocating a favor, or were thankful for the help i provided along the way.. Thank you for your informative blog, and best of luck to you in your endeavors!

    • August 12, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Thanks, AK. Good thoughts there. It’s so true, aviation is a small world and who you know is as important as what you know. Likewise, I’ve noticed it doesn’t pay to burn bridges; I’ve seen cases where a captain walked into an interview a few years later with his former FO sitting on the other side of the desk. 🙂

  10. Angelo
    August 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm

    New reader to your Blog! Love the posts (should be sleeping catching up on all the posts). Nice layout as well. Have been thinking of starting my own blog. Is this your own design/layout or something from a platform? Looks too nice to be platform based!!

    • August 13, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      Welcome, Angelo! Glad you’re enjoying the site — thanks for reading. The CMS software is WordPress, and the current layout is a modified design from Elegant Themes.

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